Multi-National Federalism in Ethiopia and Stalin

The last few years the term “ethnic federalism” has been used by opponents of the Washington-backed TPLF to describe the state structure of the last 30 years in Ethiopia when they were in power. In the same manner, they have ultimately attributed the present state of conflicts and power struggles to “ethnic federalism.” There are key ideological motivations and reasoning behind such an incorrect historic interpretation and framing. These can be traced to the political and intellectual class of the Abyssinian camp hailing from the Amhara region, as well as a few sympathetic hyper visible online personalities in the Eritrean community.

“Ethnic Federalism” is a pejorative slur employed by Abyssinians to discredit the historic developments of the National Question and its ideological foundation in Ethiopia. Furthermore, by presenting the issue as simply a matter of stereotyped African “tribal” infighting and ethnic conflict, the term itself minimizes the grievances of historically oppressed nationalities advocating for it, whereas it is actually about self-determination and political and cultural autonomy.

It is true that the Abyssinian camp from Amhara region want to dismantle the current system, which is not fully implementing multinational federalism, but it must be noted that their Abyssinian power rival from Tigray region, led by the TPLF, exploited the National Question and self-determination to put in place federalism on paper without addressing the historical imbalance and configuration.

The correct term and framing is multi-national federalism and must be viewed soberly through the National Question. This must be done by developing a proper transnational federal structure to instill trust in the oppressed nationalities. This will lend momentum to a struggle towards a true re-imagined centralized confederated Ethiopia which will hopefully lead to formation of a worker-led state.

Following is Stalin’s view adjusting the federal structure to suit the Soviet internal issue and contemporary needs after having full concerns initially.

Against Federalism
March 28, 1917

Delo Naroda, 1 No. 5, carried an article entitled “Russia—a Union of Regions.” It recommends nothing more nor less than the conversion of Russia into a “union of regions,” a “federal state.” Listen to this :

“Be it declared that the federal state of Russia assumes the attributes of sovereignty vested in the various regions (Little Russia, Georgia, Siberia, Turkestan, etc.). . . . But let it grant the various regions internal sovereignty. And let the forthcoming Constituent Assembly establish a Russian Union of Regions.”

The author of the article (Jos. Okulich) explains this in the following manner :

“Let there be instituted a single Russian army, a single currency, a single foreign policy, a single supreme court. But let the various regions of the single state be free to build their new life independently. If already in 1776 the Americans . . . created a ‘United States’ by means of a treaty of union, why should we in 1917 be incapable of creating a firm union of regions?”

So says Delo Naroda.

One has to admit that the article is in many respects interesting and, at any rate, original. Intriguing, too, is the solemnity of its tone, its “manifesto” style, so to speak (“be it declared,” “let there be instituted”!).

For all that, it must be observed that in general it is a peculiar piece of muddle-headedness. And the muddle is due at bottom to its more than frivolous treatment of the constitutional history of the United States of America (as well as of Switzerland and Canada).

What does this history tell us?

In 1776, the United States was not a federation, but a confederation of what until then were independent colonies, or states. That is, there were independent colonies, but later, in order to protect their common interests against their enemies, chiefly external, they concluded an alliance (confederation), without, however, ceasing to be fully independent state units. In the 1800’s a crucial change took place in the political life of the country: the Northern states demanded a firmer and closer political connection between the states, in opposition to the Southern states, which protested against “centralism” and stood up for the old system. The “Civil War” broke out and resulted in the Northern states gaining the upper hand. A federation was established in America, that is, a union of sovereign states which shared power with the federal (central) government. But this system did not last long. Federation proved to be as much a transitional measure as confederation. The struggle between the states and the central government continued unceasingly, dual government became intolerable, and in the course of its further evolution the United States was transformed from a federation into a unitary (integral) state, with uniform constitutional provisions and the limited autonomy (not governmental, but political-administrative) permitted to the states by these provisions. The name “federation” as applied to the United States became an empty word, a relic of the past which had long since ceased to correspond to the actual state of affairs.

The same must be said of Switzerland and Canada, to whom the author of the article likewise refers. We find the same independent states (cantons) at the beginning, the same struggle for stronger union (the war against the Sonderbund 2 in Switzerland, the struggle between the British and French in Canada), and the same subsequent conversion of the federation into a unitary state.

What do these facts indicate?

Only that in America, as well as in Canada and Switzerland, the development was from independent regions, through their federation, to a unitary state; that the trend of development is not in favour of federation, but against it. Federation is a transitional form.

This is not fortuitous, because the development of capitalism in its higher forms, with the concomitant expansion of the economic territory, and its trend towards centralization, demands not a federal, but a unitary form of state.

We cannot ignore this trend, unless, of course, we try to turn back the wheel of history.

But it follows from this that in Russia it would be unwise to work for a federation, which is doomed by the very realities of life to disappear.

Delo Naroda proposes to repeat in Russia the experience of the United States of 1776. But is there even a remote analogy between the United States of 1776 and the Russia of today?

The United States was at that time a congeries of independent colonies, unconnected with one another and desirous of linking themselves together at least in the form of a confederation. And that desire was quite natural. Is the situation in any way similar in present-day Russia? Of course, not! It is clear to everyone that the regions (border districts) of Russia are linked with Central Russia by economic and political ties, and that the more democratic Russia becomes, the stronger these ties will be.

Further, in order to establish a confederation or federation in America, it was necessary to unite colonies which were unconnected with one another. And that was in the interest of the economic development of the United States. But in order to convert Russia into a federation, it would be necessary to break the already existing economic and political ties connecting the regions with one another, which would be absolutely unwise and reactionary.

Lastly, America (like Canada and Switzerland) is divided into states (cantons) not on national, but on geographical lines. The states evolved from colonial communities, irrespective of their national composition. There are several dozen states in the United States, but only seven or eight national groups. There are 25 cantons (regions) in Switzerland, but only three national groups. Not so in Russia. What in Russia are called regions which need, say, autonomy (the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Siberia, Turkestan, etc.), are not simply geographical regions, as the Urals or the Volga area are; they are definite parts of Russia, each with its own definite way of life and a population of definite (non-Russian) national composition. Precisely for this reason autonomy (or federation) of the states in America or Switzerland, far from being a solution for the national problem (this, in fact, is not its aim!), does not even raise the question. But, in Russia, autonomy (or federation) of the regions is proposed precisely in order to raise and solve the national problem, because Russia is divided into regions on national lines.

Is it not clear then that the analogy between the United States of 1776 and the Russia of today is artificial and foolish?

Is it not clear that in Russia federalism would not, and cannot, solve the national problem, that it would only confuse and complicate it by quixotic attempts to turn back the wheel of history?

No, the proposal to repeat in Russia the experience of America of 1776 will positively not do. The transitional half-measure, federation, does not and cannot satisfy the interests of democracy.

The solution of the national problem must be as practicable as it is radical and final, viz.:

1) The right of secession for the nations inhabiting certain regions of Russia who cannot remain, or who do not desire to remain, within the integral framework;

2) Political autonomy within the framework of the single (integral) state, with uniform constitutional provisions, for the regions which have a specific nationalcomposition and which remain within the integral framework.

It is in this way, and in this way alone, that the problem of the regions should be solved in Russia.*

Pravda, No. 19, March 28, 1917

Author’s Note

  • This article reflects the attitude of disapproval towards a federal form of state which prevailed in our Party at that time. The objection to constitutional federalism was most distinctly expressed in Lenin’s letter to Shaumyan of November 1913. “We,” Lenin said in that letter, “stand for democratic centralism, unreservedly. We are opposed to federation. . . . We are opposed to federation in principle—it weakens economic ties, and is unsuitable for what is one state. You want to secede? Well, go to the devil if you can bring yourself to sever economic ties, or, rather, if the burden and friction of ‘cohabitation’ are such that they poison and corrode economic ties. You don’t want to secede? Good, but then don’t decide for me, and don’t think you have the ‘right’ to federation” (see Vol. XVII, p. 90).

It is noteworthy that in the resolution on the national question adopted by the April Conference of the Party in 1917, 3 the question of a federal structure was not even mentioned. The resolution spoke of the right of nations to secession, of autonomy for national regions within the framework of the integral (unitary) state, and, lastly, of the enactment of a fundamental law prohibiting all national privileges whatsoever, but not a word was said about the permissibility of a federal structure of the state.

In Lenin’s book, The State and Revolution (August 1917), the Party, in the person of Lenin, made the first serious step towards recognition of the permissibility of federation, as a transitional form “to a centralized republic,” this recognition, however, being accompanied by a number of substantial reservations.

“Approaching the matter from the point of view of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution,” Lenin says in this book, “Engels, like Marx, upheld democratic centralism, the republic — one and indivisible. He regarded the federal republic either as an exception and a hindrance to development, or as a transitional form from a monarchy to a centralized republic, as a ‘step forward’ under certain special conditions. And, as one of these special conditions, he mentions the national question. . . . Even in regard to England, where geographical conditions, a common language and the history of many centuries would seem to have ‘put an end’ to the national question in the separate small divisions of England—even in regard to that country, Engels reckoned with the patent fact that the national question was not yet a thing of the past, and recognized in consequence that the establishment of a federal republic would be a ‘step forward.’ Of course, there is not the slightest hint here of Engels abandoning the criticism of the shortcomings of a federal republic or that he abandoned the most determined propaganda and struggle for a unified and centralized democratic republic” (see Vol. XXI, p. 419).

Only after the October Revolution did the Party firmly and definitely adopt the position of state federation, advancing it as its own plan for the constitution of the Soviet Republics in the transitional period. This position was expressed for the first time in January 1918, in the “Declaration of Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People,” written by Lenin and approved by the Central Committee of the Party. This declaration said: “The Russian Soviet Republic is established on the principle of a free union of free nations, as a federation of Soviet national republics” (see Vol. XXII, p. 174).

Officially, this position was affirmed by the Party at its Eighth Congress (1919).4 It was at this congress, as we know, that the program of the Russian Communist Party was adopted. The program says: “As one of the transitional forms towards complete unity, the Party recommends a federal amalgamation of states organized on the Soviet pattern” (see Program of the R.C.P.).

Thus the Party traversed the path from denial of federation to recognition of federation as “a transitional form to the complete unity of the working people of the various nations” (see “Theses on the National Question” 5 adopted by the Second Congress of the Comintern).

This evolution in our Party’s views on the question of a federal state is to be attributed to three causes.

First, the fact that at the time of the October Revolution a number of the nationalities of Russia were actually in a state of complete secession and complete isolation from one another, and, in view of this, federation represented a step forward from the division of the working masses of these nationalities to their closer union, their amalgamation.

Secondly, the fact that the very forms of federation which suggested themselves in the course of Soviet development proved by no means so contradictory to the aim of closer economic unity between the working masses of the nationalities of Russia as might have appeared formerly, and even did not contradict this aim at all, as was subsequently demonstrated in practice.

Thirdly, the fact that the national movement proved to be far more weighty a factor, and the process of amalgamation of nations far more complicated a matter than might have appeared formerly, in the period prior to the war, or in the period prior to the October Revolution.

J. St.

December 1924